Metal History – Thrash Metal Part 3: Beyond the Big Four In America

July 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

Presenting thrash metal to the world like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the Big Four were among the progenitors of the genre. Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax collected the lion’s share of the album sales, fans, and awards–and still do. Their decades of fine service to the genre have ensured over time that they are considered the definitive thrash metal bands.

However, they didn’t do it all on their own. Plenty of their other, less-celebrated peers played a part in making thrash metal what it is today–building a larger and larger following in the underground thanks to their hard work and excellent music. Fanbases evolve over time and it has never been easier to rediscover these other, more neglected thrashers. Many of the groups in this section were former members of the Big Four back in their early days and hit their stride starting in the mid-to-late 80s, as the rising tide of thrash expanded interest in them. Typically they have at least one or two truly excellent/mandatory records for thrasher’s collection–so perhaps not All Time Hall of Fame careers, but vital and well-respected nonetheless. In fact, a common discussion among metalheads is (especially those who are either disillusioned or hell-bent on continuing to explore) is: “Who are the REAL Big Four?”

This section is about those much-loved, just-as-good, but not as popular thrash metal bands, beyond the Big Four…in America. Thrash is America’s greatest gift to the world of metal, and there is enough to fill an entire section here plus another section for the rest of the world. Suffice to say…there are many more bands here than “another Four!”

At a house party somewhere near the Bay Area of San Francisco, a young drummer named Paul Bostaph wandered into another room where the cool musicians were hanging out (they all tend to gravitate towards each other eventually!). Something incredibly loud and incredibly evil was blasting from someone’s record player at top volume.

Bostaph stops in his tracks and let his eyes wander to his bandmate, a guitarist named Craig Locicero, who is equally transfixed by what is playing. As it turns out, it was “the new Slayer record”–Reign In Blood.

After a few more minutes of listening, Bostaph can say nothing except, “We are so fucked.”

Now, he really didn’t have to worry by saying that. The band he and Locicero were in, Forbidden, was actually pretty good themselves. In the late 80s they wound up leading the rest of the thrash metal field with some powerful vocals by Russ Anderson and technically-inclined musicianship. Plus, if you told Bostaph at the time, “In six years you’ll be drumming for this band,” he wouldn’t have believed you. But join Slayer he would, and you just don’t turn down an opportunity like that. Over the years, Paul was a good soldier for both bands, answering the call when needed…which was fairly often, given Slayer’s ongoing issues with their usual drummer, Dave Lombardo. Bostaph is actually in Slayer’s lineup as we speak, continuing to earn respect for his playing and attitude among fans of both bands.

Forbidden’s cross-town Bay Area rival band was Vio-Lence. A guitarist named Rob Flynn (remember that name, it will come upon again later) left Forbidden (then called Forbidden Evil) to go and join Vio-Lence.

Their thrash stylings were similar, making the two bands peers. Aggressive and technical instrumentation, together with vocals that were not quite clean but not quite rough/dirty either. In hindsight, perhaps because some of those vocals lacked the truly memorable impact upon listeners than other vocalists did that bands like Vio-Lence and Forbidden remain heavily overlooked.

In 2001, both bands joined forces with several other Bay Area thrash peers for a benefit concert honoring one of their own: Chuck Billy, singer of Testament.

A contender for “who else belongs in the Big Four” discussion, Testament delivered a string of very good albums in the late 1980s before the thrash movement largely ended in 1991. At that point, they tried their hand at death metal with mixed results. It made sense for them because Chuck Billy’s natural range let him both shriek and death-grunt, often within the same song. They have had a career almost as long and consistent as any of the Big Four thrash bands, winning them a steady and sizable fanbase.

So Testament fans were disheartened to learn that Chuck Billy was diagnosed with germ cell seminoma, a rare form of cancer that threatened his heart with a tumor. His friends put on a benefit concert to help with his medical expenses called Thrash of the Titans. Sold out quickly, the concert achieved its purpose. Billy entered chemotherapy and emerged with a clean bill of health on the other side. In true heavy metal fashion, he took his revitalized lineup back into the studio (and back on tour).  Along the way, he collected a mention from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in honor of his Native American (Pomo tribe) heritage.

Just recently Testament revisited its Bay Area thrash roots and were a headliner at Wacken 2012, a fine example of a respected group still going strong. “Over the Wall” is their signature song, the one that got them noticed in 1987–a beautiful blend of melodic twin guitars and technical drumming.

Not everyone in thrash was as fortunate as Chuck Billy, however.

Another band that made an appearance at Thrash of the Titans to assist its troubled brother was Exodus, another popular choice for a Big Four honorable mention. The band featured guitarist Kirk Hammett for its first few years of existence before he went to join Metallica, and the latter band eclipsed Exodus in prominence. However, Exodus was well on its way to legendary status in the San Francisco Bay Area just from its debut album alone, Bonded By Blood.

That 1985 thrash beast was recorded with Paul Baloff, a truly beloved frontman if not the most technically accomplished singer. But when you saw Exodus live, it didn’t matter–for those who were there, you were in attendance not just to thrash, headbang, and chuck beers around, but also just to hear what Paul Baloff would yell next.

According to “The Merciless Book of Metal Lists” (and also Gary Holt), you were likely to hear the following at an Exodus show:

“This ain’t no Arsenio Hall show, destroy something!”

“My grandmother screams louder than you, and she’s DEAD!”

“You know what I think about posers, it’s already been said, if you see one–KILL IT!”

Much loved as he was and as well as Baloff could command a crowd, the band’s revolving door of members eventually claimed him a number of times to the point where Exodus probably spent more time as an active band without him than with him. So when they reunited for Thrash of the Titans in 2001, it was a special time for the fans, and they did not disappoint.

Sadly, it was to be one of the last times Baloff was seen live–he passed away from a stroke only six months after that show. As the fans love to say, he is off to kill posers in the afterlife.

Here’s their signature song from that 1985 classic of the same name…

Also hailing yet again from the Bay Area is a band that was selling demo cassettes out of their car trunks even earlier than Exodus: Metal Church. In their very first days, they featured someone named Lars Ulrich on drums, but he left for LA before they managed to even record a demo with him. Only a couple of years later as Metal Church started releasing excellent thrash metal, Metallica would not forget to give back as James Hetfield encouraged his label contacts at Elektra to sign them.

Their 1984 self-titled debut included the song below and sold over 70,000 copies without any major label backing at all. Can you believe that? Even after guiding light guitarist Kurt Vanderhoof retired from performing with the band in 1986, he still helps them write their songs today–ensuring their vitality and relevance as more than just an “also-ran” to the Big Four.

The now-veterans have had a strong and consistent career since then, always a good draw and taking fans to Metal Church for over thirty years now. Plus, gravelly screeching has never sounded so fun.

Down south near LA, a member of Slayer’s lighting/sound check crew who also happened to be a self-taught drummer started his own band after assisting on the recording of 1983’s Show No Mercy. Gene Hoglan was an early master of double bass drumming and continues to be one of the most admired and respected drummers in metal.

When his band, Dark Angel, released Darkness Descends in 1986, admirers of the almighty kit found that Hoglan had many tricks up his sleeve from his time in Slayer. Through much hard work and practice, Gene came to acquire the nickname “The Human Drum Machine” for his precision and speed. Over the years he has played drums for Death, Opeth, and The Devin Townsend Project among many others. These days, he releases instructional DVDs for aspiring drummers in addition to his playing duties.

Despite his talent and pedigree, Dark Angel occupied a less-popular tier than its fellow thrashers.

Darkness Descends however, remains Gene Hoglan’s most admired showing.

By now, you’re probably noticing a pattern…there’s a healthy degree of overlap in many thrash bands, especially those from the same region! Even if you hadn’t been an official member of a band’s lineup, chances are everyone still knew each other–and knew you. The thrash bands all played in many of the same venues, often to similar crowds. When a band released a demo or an album, the other bands were usually listening. And of course, they were all chasing the heat, aggression and creative energy of the music.

So as we finally leave the West Coast thrash scene behind, we’ll stop over in Texas before we hit the East Coast (I see you all over there, chomping at the bit for me to get to Overkill already!).

Thrash metal was around in Texas during the 1980s, but it would take a little longer for the state to have a true breakout, crossover act. Nevertheless, the same work ethic still applied–because there was no Big Four act from from Houston, Dallas, or Austin, the underground bands that did exist had to work that much harder for their recognition. Though their music is undeniably thrash metal, generally speaking the Texas bands had an even higher level of technicality and progressive tendencies than their countrymen on both coasts. This is a bit of a gamble, because thrash’s appeal is in its simplicity and speed–and bolting on some over-thought concepts onto it can backfire if not holistically executed.

Helstar, from Houston, is one of those hard-working, extremely underrated bands who enjoy a loyal fanbase in Texas and beyond. Many of those fans cite Helstar’s crossover appeal as fans of early American power metal, with its neoclassical sections and operatic vocals. Whether they identify more as thrashers or power metallers, Helstar has never been shy about proclaiming its gratitude to its fans over the years, rewarding them with continued presence and relevance today.

Watchtower is a band from Austin who hit the apex of American progressive thrash metal in 1989 with an album called Control And Resistance.
It was a style would also take root in Germany and Switzerland, and its main features include an extremely high degree of musicianship that encompasses areas from jazz to neo-classical. At its craziest, one truly wonders how Watchtower pulled these songs off live. Not many at the time were prepared for such heavy, complex, and chaotic songs.

But those who did…became die-hard fans of progressive thrash. Watchtower are kings of this niche on this side of the Atlantic, a tiny, wild corner all their own.

Finally, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, three high-school friends who shared a love for all music heavy and all movies horrific and gory virtually created the thrash metal underground in that city. They called themselves Rigor Mortis.

Although they could shred as well as any of the members of Watchtower or Helstar, Rigor Mortis kept a simpler, brutal, high-speed-focus to its music–borderline death metal pacing. Their lyrics could have inspired the gore-obsessed fiends in Cannibal Corpse, and their self-titled debut is a classic of extreme thrash. The band’s momentum might have continued, had guitarist Mike Scaccia not been invited to join Ministry soon afterwards–and they were one of the most successful and rapidly-growing metal bands in America.

Eventually Scaccia returned though, and in 2012 Rigor Mortis had “another” reunion. It turned out enough fans remembered and appreciated them to crowdfund their next studio record with total success.

However, it was to be a posthumous release. Scaccia collapsed onstage of a heart attack at the age of 47(!) shortly before midnight on December 22, 2012. The remaining members perform the Rigor Mortis tunes under a new name, the Wizards of Gore (after a song on that first brutal LP).

Although thrash metal is largely a West Coast movement, a number of East Coast groups contributed to its development as well with a greater focus on the hardcore punk sound (discussed in “Early Influences”).  At least one New York group, Anthrax, did this to enormous success, but as always they weren’t alone in the tri-state area.

As Anthrax’s lineup settled into place, a couple of the founding members joined Scott Ian for a side project in crossover thrash–S.O.D. (the Stormtroopers of Death!). This was important to fuel the members’ creative drive outside of Anthrax, and S.O.D. was credited as being one of the first “crossover thrash” groups, combining hardcore punk and thrash metal. The songs were brutally, cruelly short and were key statements of New York Hardcore (N.Y.H.C., which should be tattooed on your knuckles for maximum effect). The subgenre became quite popular in the New York City underground and is one of the city’s few meaningful contributions to the world of heavy music. Fact is, it was a pretty violent and seedy place to live for many years back in the day–and both the bullies and the bullied could relate to it.

“The lyrics were never intended to be serious, just to piss people off,” said bassist Danny Lilker.

And S.O.D. wasn’t Danny Lilker’s only project. He also had Nuclear Assault, playing a form of thrash inspired by the Anthrax sound. Nuclear Assault formed after Lilker left Anthrax in 1984 and remain active on the touring circuit. The band played venues around New York area like L’Amour’s in Brooklyn. Their love of video games and horror movies formed many song themes, and even today one can picture playing a retro game like Duke Nukem while hearing “Live, Suffer, Die,” the opening instrumental from their 1986 album, Game Over–one of the several jewels in the crown of East Coast thrash metal.

Upstate New York had its own thrash metal heroes far removed from the tough grimness of the metropolis. Toxik is a band that fired up its progressive thrash leanings (like the Texas bands) and featured some of the cleanest vocals in all of thrash regardless of coast. During the twilight of thrash’s golden age (1991), their second album Think This was an astounding, heavy reflection upon the modernizing American political and media landscape. Unbelievably, they remained obscure even among genre aficionados. It’s one of the many examples of such high-quality metal output not getting the attention it deserves.

Toxik’s story continues happily, however! The band’s third studio album (only their third!) is in production as we speak, due out in 2017. Hopefully with that effort, Toxik has another chance to finally capture all their well-deserved accolades.

And then there is Overkill, the New Jersey outfit generally considered a shoo-in for “The Other Big Four.”

A number of their records, from Feel The Fire through The Years of Decay, are mid-to-latter day thrash classics from 1985 to 1989. Their production quality and epic stylings made Overkill East Coast darlings. The past several years have seen the Old Bridge natives gain a tremendous resurgence in popularity. In fact, plenty of people dig them more than they dig Anthrax.

Speaking from personal experience, Overkill’s live shows are events of intense beauty. Their fans, “The Wrecking Crew,” really love Overkill. Perhaps they’re not as insane as Slayer fans, but their devotion to the band is pretty singular. Even pushing into his 50s now, lead singer Bobby Blitz Ellsworth is a great metal character who gives 110% along with the rest of the band every evening. Almost always shirtless, Blitz’s showmanship is borderline athletic, and that crazed gravelly voice of his is perfect for AC/DC covers.

Here he is leading the wrecking crew in one of Overkill’s longest-running concert traditions…

I’ve saved my personal best for last here–Overkill is my personal favorite thrash of the non Big Four groups, with Testament a very close second. What about the rest of you? Who is your favorite non-Big Four thrash band?

In addition, there are plenty of other American thrash acts that didn’t get to share the same limelight as many others. Let me know of any other acts I missed in the comments!

Next time, we’ll look beyond the American regional scenes and see how thrash metal took root overseas…

History of Thrash Part 1: Early Influences
History of Thrash Part 2: The Big Four

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